It’s taken me ten days since I was invited to comment on a story that was written up in the Independent. According to a new book by Cambridge professor, Susan Golombok – best known for her studies on same sex families – family structure has no effect at all on child outcomes. Once you take into account the quality of family relationships, she says, it doesn’t matter if your parents are on their own, married, cohabiting, stepfamily, or a same sex couple.
In other words, children don’t need a mother and don’t need a father. As long as they’ve got love from somebody.
To some extent, this is self-evident. Nobody disputes the importance of relationship quality. Parenting research consistently shows that children tend to do best if their parents give them love and set boundaries. This style is called ‘authoritative parenting‘ and any parent can do this on their own. Love your child and the child will do OK. “Obv“, as my own teenagers would tell their father, who is now apparently surplus to requirements.
But there’s also a terrible flaw in Professor Golombok’s claim. Just because all parents have the capability of being brilliant doesn’t mean that family structure has no effect. Anyone can have good quality relations with their children. It’s how adults structure their own relationship that makes this more or less likely.
The claim that family structure doesn’t matter is plainly absurd. Entire journals are filled with studies that identify differences in outcomes between married families, stepfamilies, cohabiting families and lone parent families. (Here are just a few examples 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Some of the differences are down to background factors, such as income and education. But much of the difference is not. The reasons are highly plausible, not least that parents who have two pairs of hands are able to use their resources more efficiently that those who have to do everything with one pair of hands. In the UK, lone parents are least likely to use authoritative parenting. I suspect workload and overcompensation are as good a reason for this as any. Whatever, there is a difference in parenting that is due to family structure and also very real.
So let’s have a look at a couple of recent but quite different studies that explore whether family structure matters.
The type of study from which Professor Golombok draws her conclusion involves a comparison of gay, lesbian and heterosexual families. A good example is one published last year in the journal Child Development that compared families with adopted children aged between 4 and 8. Among the parents, gay fathers were found to have more positive well-being and parenting style than the heterosexual parents. Among the children, heterosexual children had more externalised problems. In other words they tended to behave worse.
This particular study is based on 41 gay fathers, 40 lesbian mothers and 49 heterosexual adoptive parents. If this isn’t an unrepresentative group of parents, I don’t know what is.
In the UK, only 60 children are adopted by gay fathers each year. So if you want to study same sex parents, they can’t be drawn from a wider household survey in the normal way because they are such a rarity. To find 41 such fathers, they need to be actively recruited – which makes them selected and non-random. If I were then to guess at the characteristics of these groups, I’d expect the gay parents to be the pick of the bunch. Adoption might be their only option. In the early years of parenthood at least, they are likely to be especially diligent and loving. They’re going to look good. I’d expect the heterosexual parents to be similarly enthusiastic about their role. But for some at least, adoption might be the last resort along a much more stressful road to become a parent: inability to become pregnant, failed treatments of IVF, etc. So it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to find that the heterosexual adopters – on average – seem to do less well, which is what the study found.
All parents who adopt are doing something wonderful. And this study demonstrates, rightly in my view, that gay fathers can make very good parents. However what it doesn’t demonstrate in any sense is either that children don’t need mothers or that heterosexual married couples aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
There’s a major problem in taking findings found among a very small and highly selective sample of adoptive parents and then extrapolating the findings to draw general conclusions about parenthood in the wider population.
Let’s now look at a brand new study that did take a sample from the wider population in order to question the commonly held assumption that time spent with mothers is incredibly important to children. If mothers really don’t matter, this is the kind of study that should give us a better clue.
This study in the April issue of Journal of Marriage and Family looked at whether the sheer volume of time spent with either parent bore any relationship to child outcomes. The study was based on detailed 24 hour diaries of how 2,300 children and their parents spent one weekday and one weekend day. Time was divided into ‘accessible’ time when either parent was available and ‘engaged’ time when a parent was actively involved with their child. This issue is interesting because there are distinct bodies of opinion about whether mothers should be going out to work or staying at home, especially when they have younger children. For this reason, the study separated out the link between mummy time and a range of outcomes for children aged 3 to 11 and for teenagers aged 12 to 18.
The results are quite surprising.
- For the younger children, exclusive time with their mother, whether ‘accessible’ or ‘engaged’, had no effect at all on their outcomes – once backgrond and other family factors were taken into account..
- For the teenagers, the only effect of time was found in a small reduction in delinquent behaviours for those with a more ‘engaged’ mother. So it’s teens, and not younger children, who appear to benefit most from the presence of their mother at home.
- Time with both parents together however was linked to a whole range of better outcomes for teens – better maths, fewer behavioural problems, less substance abuse,
- Background factors also made a difference. Mother’s education was linked to children’s better performance at reading and maths across both age groups. And family income was also linked to better performance at maths for the younger children, though not for the teens.
- And finally, surprise surprise, family structure did matter. Compared to children living in married biological parent families, children living in stepfamilies had more behavioural problems and children living with single mothers had more emotional problems. Teenagers in either stepfamilies or single mother households had more behavioural problems.
This study is like so many others that use complex methods to identify the magic ingredient. The trouble is that the magic ingredient is often the combination itself. You can’t bake a cake with only flour, or only egg, or only milk, or only sugar. But combine them together and you make the magic. That’s what the study really shows. Put a biological mother and father together and both children and teens do better. Take one away and children don’t do so well. On average.
The way we organise our families profoundly affects how we act as parents. Sure you can make a perfectly good family without a mum or a dad. But the odds begin to work against you.
It’s the combination of mum and dad that matters. And funnily enough, that’s a bit like how children are made in the first place.
So, mum and dad still required after all.